Category Archives: Reflections

Halloween, Reformation Day, and All Saints

I love Halloween. I also love Reformation Day (which I realize puts me at odds with some fellow Episcopalians). Most of all, I love All Saints Day (and I like the aesthetics of All Souls/Día de los Muertos, though I find it theologically problematic). It has always felt right to me that these three celebrations go together, jack-o-lanterns and all. My All Saints post from a few years ago is still one of the better things I’ve written, where I talked about the healing bond holding us together with all those we love, as well as those we can’t imagine loving yet, living or dead. That’s the All Saints aspect of the whole thing.

But I also like the Halloween aspect.

Continue reading

On not Imagining Redemption

Jacob's Ladder by William Blake, sort of how I try (not) to imagine redemption

Blake, Jacob’s Ladder. Like the redemption you can’t imagine, you can’t see where the ladder is going.

All the “me toos” on Facebook remind me of certain aspects of Judaism I admire and sometimes envy, particularly the willingness to let evil and suffering just be evil and horrible without trying to fit it into a narrative of redemption, or at least not any redemption that one presumes to be able to imagine yet. Because there is nothing good, beautiful, or redemptive about any of this.

It takes a very appealing sort of courage and hope to live with evil that is just evil, and still say baruch atta adonai. I think this is why, for example, there’s never been much enthusiasm for rebuilding the temple, quite apart from the practical difficulties that would attend such a project. Until the Messiah comes, rabbinical Judaism doesn’t presume to know what a redeemed world would look like (and the Messiah could probably rebuild the temple without destroying the dome) [Jewish friends: please feel very welcome to offer correction to this characterization of your religion, should you find it warranted]. Continue reading

A Cloak over the Land

St. Brigid of Kildare, whose feast is today, is the unofficial patron of Brent House, my spiritual home at the University of Chicago and my sponsoring community in the ordination process. Patroness of scholars, brewers, and dairy workers, defender of peasants, ascetic for the sake of joy, and worker of delightfully over-the-top miracles. Like Brent House, a symbol of everything good in the world.

The story is told that she once asked the king for land on which to build a monastery (which would have also been what we would call a community center). The king in question was more concerned with his own revenue than with his communities, so she told him that she only needed as much land as her cloak could cover. After he agreed, she threw her cloak on the ground and it covered the whole county. A reminder of who the land really belongs to, and what it’s for.

Now the United States of America is a bit bigger than Kildare, but that makes no difference to God. Thanks everyone, for all the ways you are reminding our worthless leaders whose this land is, and what it’s for. Don’t forget to take care of yourselves while you’re at it. Drink a beer, if you can do safely, and eat some ice cream or cheese. We also resist what is evil by celebrating and sharing what is joyful.

O God, by whose grace your servant Brigid, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.
(Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Collect for Feast of St. Brigid)

And check out this beautiful icon from the Church of St. Brigid in Kildare. Follow the link to learn more about it and about her.

Brigid of Kildare. Follow the link to learn more about her and about this wonderful icon, written by Sr. Aloysius McVeigh RSM an displayed at the church in Kildare.

Brigid of Kildare. Follow the link to learn more about her and about this wonderful icon, written by Sr. Aloysius McVeigh RSM an displayed at the church in Kildare.

Undoing Babel

Donald Trump is trying to take away our humanity. He is doing this by cutting us off from one another. But Jesus came to make us divine by making us fully human, which requires us to share a commitment to a common world and a common conversation with one another, no matter how strange our voices sound to each other. Look what Trump is doing: he is impeding communication, and thus communion. Whether it be by silencing government employees, defunding humanistic research, building his wall, or blocking immigration and denying asylum. He tells his lies about groups of people so that we will not be able to talk to them or listen to them, and he does it expertly–the Lord rebuke him!

An icon of Pentecost

An icon of Pentecost

 

But all it takes to resist Trump is what those of us who are committed to the Gospel are going to do anyway: we have to refuse division and create communion. When Trump cuts off channels of communication, we have to open new ones. What this means concretely depends on where you are and who you are. But one thing we can all do is pray, including (especially!) for our enemies.

I am currently working on an article that is partly on Augustine’s On Christian Teaching. I was despairing about its relevance or usefulness to our present struggles when I came across this in one of my secondary sources:

Communication is a necessary condition for community; but direct communication between human minds, a transparency of mutual understanding, is not possible in the fallen human condition. Language arises from the conflict of this impossibility with the natural human need for community…For Augustine semantic activity–understanding and communicating through language–was the index of the human need for transcendence in the most general terms: for union with other minds in the very act of understanding a shared world.
-Robert Markus, Signs and Meanings: World and Text in Ancient Christianity (Liverpool University Press, 1996), pp. 110-11

But as Augustine explains in De doctrina and elsewhere, to put a short-circuit what other people and other things mean is to defy the very work of the Incarnation. It is a false judgment that loves and regards others as having no value. It cuts us off from them and them from the beauty and goodness of the whole creation. To use Augustine’s words, it is to fail to see them and thus ourselves as signs.

So the good news: Jesus has already undone what Trump is trying to do. Pentecost undid Babel. Just as we can pray for each other even we really don’t like or understand one another, we can also commit to seeing ourselves as part of the same conversation. For anyone to attain the transcendence which Augustine diagnoses as the basic desire behind all of our communication, we need every human being in on the conversation. This does not mean that we all speak the same language or say the same things. When the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, the first Christians did not all start speaking the same language. They started speaking every language. 

The fullness of conversation is something that will have to emerge amidst all the tensions, failures, and misunderstandings of our glorious cacophony. But to invoke one more Augustinian conviction, there is another voice speaking behind and through ours, enabling understanding to emerge. It is the “light that enlightens all peoples,” the Word of God.

God’s word is not chained. So don’t despair, and don’t believe the lies. Call your representatives, find a march to attend, invite someone different from you to coffee. And for the love of God, pray! Trump may have invoked God in his inauguration speech, but he has actually declared open warfare on everything God is trying to do. He will fail. He will go the way of  Nebuchadnezzar and Nero. He may be saved, but his works will lie in ruin. Sad.

Implications of Fetal Heartbeat Bills for Organ Transplantation

Fetal Heartbeat bills have been making the rounds in conservative states since about 2011. Such bills restrict abortion to the period of time prior to the fetus having a heartbeat. If a heartbeat can be detected, then abortion is illegal. These bills have been proposeohio_heartbeat-bill-300x168d in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, and Wyoming. None of these bills have successfully become law, but in the wake of Trump’s election, the Ohio state legislature decided to test the waters: The House and Senate of that state passed the bill and sent it to the governor. He vetoed it–knowing it would not stand up in court as long as Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land. Continue reading

Fragments of Mind-Body Dualism in Organ Transplantation

emotional-detox-the-seven-deadly-sins-iv-1995

Organ transplantation as a process has many players and a lot of moving parts. For example, there is the donor and the donor’s family, the recipient and family, social workers, pharmacists, myriad specialists, surgeons, and the national, regional, and local governing bodies that procure and allocate organs. All of these moving parts lead to significant specialization on the parts of the players involved, while also creating openings for ethical problems at every step in the process. There are questions about who gets listed to get an organ, how they pay for it, where the organ comes from, who isn’t getting the organ, are regions getting similar numbers or organs….I could continue listing questions for paragraphs, but I want to hone in on one question in particular: How are the bodies of donors and recipients conceptualized in this medical setting.

Continue reading

Break every chain!

This post starts off talking about babies, but it’s really about prisons and what you can do about them. Actionable items at the end!

Our Lord Jesus Christ breaking every chain.

Our Lord Jesus Christ breaking every chain.

Having a baby is an emotional roller coaster, even when you’re not the one whose body was playing host. When our twins were born six weeks early in January, one was in the NICU for one week, one for three. Shortly after the first came home, they moved the little one to a different part of the hospital for babies who were considered low-risk. We did not think much of the low-risk part of the NICU. The main part was a much more loving environment. There were more babies, more family members, and it seemed to us, more attention from the very gifted nurses. The low-risk ward seemed very much like an afterthought. It was a converted patient room on the recovery floor with six or seven babies in incubators tended by two nurses. With a few notable exceptions, we did not find them to be as good as the nurses in the main ward. There were fewer family members coming and going. It seemed that our little baby was just in a glass cage all day, except when we were able to come take him out. I speak of how it seemed, not of how it was. Objectively, the care he received was perfectly adequate. Continue reading

Honor and Restraint

130313-M-RR352-026During my final year at Stanford, our newly appointed police chief died suddenly and without warning. Chief Marvin Moore was the first African American to hold the position. I found the officers devastated when I went to visit the department and offered whatever help I could. It had been their good fortune that they never lost a serving officer in or out of the line of duty for as long as anyone could remember.

Continue reading